DLR Takes Step Toward In-orbit Servicing Demonstration

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PARIS — OHB Technology will be system prime contractor for a German government program to demonstrate in-orbit servicing and de-orbiting of satellites and other hardware, Bremen, Germany-based OHB announced Feb. 24.

The German space agency, DLR, has awarded contracts for five components of its DEOS system, an acronym for German Orbital Servicing Mission, which is expected to cost up to 200 million euros ($272 million) once the decision is made to build a flight demonstrator.

DLR has not yet made that commitment. But the agency, which has been looking at a variety of in-orbit satellite refueling, inspection and maintenance technologies for over a decade, has moved DEOS forward from preliminary study to more-detailed design work.

OHB Technology’s OHB-System AG will have overall system-management responsibility for DEOS. Astrium of Germany will design a platform that would track and rendezvous with a target spacecraft. Under a separate contract, Astrium will design technologies to permit the platform to dispose of the target satellite.

A fourth contract has been awarded to SpaceTech GmbH of Immenstaad, Germany, to design a platform for a demonstrator target satellite, which would be maneuvered into position for atmospheric re-entry.

Kayser-Threde of Munich, an OHB subsidiary, will design the payload of the approach satellite that will include a robotic arm and a docking mechanism.

A DEOS demonstration mission would launch two satellites together into low Earth orbit. They would then separate, after which the servicing spacecraft would close on the target satellite, capture it and guide it into a destructive re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

OHB-System Chief Executive Berry Smutny said DEOS “combines robotics, satellite construction, and drive and position-control technology with the aim of disposing of decommissioned satellites. DEOS provides a good opportunity for propelling Germany to the international forefront with these technologies.”

Proponents of in-orbit servicing have touted it as a means to refuel aging commercial telecommunications satellites, extending their operational lives for a fraction of the cost of launching a new spacecraft. Other potential applications include clearing increasingly crowded orbital corridors, especially in low Earth orbit, of satellites that are no longer functioning but pose a danger of adding to the population of in-orbit debris via destructive collision with another object.

But to date, nobody has been willing to invest in such a system, in part out of concerns about liability in the event that a planned in-orbit rendezvous damages the satellite selected for servicing.